I find that for most interviews or pitches, you can never really tell why you lost out. The competition is always very close, the qualifications and competence of the candidates are virtually indistinguishable; it usually comes down to intangibles and so it can be very difficult to learn from a failure or correct a mistake for the future.
But sometimes you just know when the game is over – sometimes before it even really begins. I had a client going for an management position in education against an ‘anointed’ candidate. When he mentioned the latest thinking on school culture and disciplinary issues, the Chair of the selection committee leaned back and raised his eyes to heaven. Game over.

Perhaps that’s not a fair example because the Anointed One was going to get the job even if my guy started turning base metals into gold during the interview, but it amused him that the Chair dropped his poker face at that precise moment …

So what should you do if you realise that the interview or pitch is not going your way? I love this example from A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn: [FAIR WARNING – do not imbibe any fluids before reading this]

Billy Wilder went to pitch a story idea to (Samuel) Goldwyn, a movie based on the life of ballet dancer and notorious madman Nijinsky.

“Mr. Goldwyn,” Wilder said at the meeting, “why not do a picture about Nijinsky?”

Goldwyn looked puzzled. Wilder explained that Nijinsky was the single most famous ballet dancer in the world, a Russian with a “marvelous, touching story.” Wilder proceeded to talk about this peasant with a passion to dance who met Diaghilev, the impresario of the Bolshoi, and of their becoming homosexual lovers.

“Homosexuals! Are you crazy?” Goldwyn interrupted.

But Wilder proceeded, insisting the story got better. He told of Nijinsky’s going insane, and that every day, while exercising in a Swiss asylum, he believed he was a horse.

“A homosexual! A horse!” Goldwyn interrupted again, rapidly losing interest. But Wilder plowed through to the end of the story, detailing Nijinsky’s marriage to a woman, Diaghilev’s revenge, and Nijinsky’s neighing for the rest of his life. Goldwyn shooed Wilder from the office, shouting at him for wasting his time on such a miserable story.

On his way out the door, Wilder poked his head in with an afterthought, “Mr. Goldwyn,” he said, “you want a happy ending? Not only does Nijinsky think he’s a horse. But in the end … he wins the Kentucky Derby.”

Have you ever had a pitch go south on you or pinpointed the moment when the shutters came down? Perhaps a job interview where the recruiter began laughing uncontrollably and pointing at you? What happened and more importantly, how did you handle it? Do share … do.